TALLAHASSEE — Citing a reduction in crime this year, Gov. Rick Scott says he wants Florida’s prisons to operate with more efficiency, and is looking for ways to cut back on how much is spent to incarcerate the state’s inmates — by eliminating $1 billion from the prison budget.
While pledging to reduce state spending by 4.6 percent overall — Florida lawmakers are expected to be facing at least a $2 billion budget shortfall next year, a result of continued declining tax collections due to the weak economy — the governor’s office made it clear Scott would be looking to reduce the amount spent on the state’s prisons, as his budget report pledged “efficiencies and savings for Florida taxpayers as a result of 40 year low crime rates.”
Efficiencies is essentially a government term for requiring a government agency — in this case, the Florida Department of Corrections — to do more with less money. The governor’s office is targeting cuts in salaries for DOC employees and reductions in health care costs for inmates which could include privatizing those services. The governor is also making a push to expand vegetable farms run by inmates — essentially asking those who are incarcerated to grow their own food.
And the governor made it clear why the prisons were being targeted for those budget cuts: public anger over reductions in education spending this year, a trend the governor made clear that he’s ready to reverse.
“After months of traveling the state and listening to teachers, parents, students, small businesses owners and families, Governor Scott today unveiled a budget that reflects the issues and solutions most important to Floridians – funding education and helping Floridians create jobs,” the budget report notes.
“The dollars in this budget belong to all Floridians, and I have listened to the things they believe are important to spend these dollars on,” Scott said. “I have heard loud and clear that Floridians want their money spent on education and jobs, without additional burdens on families and businesses, and this budget accomplishes that.”
Noting that the Sunshine State gained 30,000 more students this year, the governor’s office said this required nearly $200 million more in state funding — a major challenge at a time when the state lost $400 million in ad valorem property taxes due to a continued decline in property values. It‘s property taxes that have been used to fund education programs.
Despite that, the governor’s budget will call for the state to increase K-12 funding by $1 billion, and raise per student funding to $6,372.
“Let me be clear about this education budget,” Scott said. “I will not sign any budget into law that doesn’t contain more state dollars for education than we have this year. I am absolutely committed to acting on what I have heard and prioritizing education funding in this budget.”
To get there, the governor is looking at budget cuts elsewhere — including in the state’s prisons.
Florida now houses 102,000 inmates in 63 state prisons, and supervises more than 115,000 active offenders on community release supervision — the third largest prison system in the nation. But a falling crime rate gives the state a rare opportunity to find savings within the prison system, the governor’s budget report claims.
Calling it an ongoing effort at “reform” of Florida’s prison system, the budget report notes that “Because of our strong commitment to criminal justice reforms, the state’s prison population is shrinking, and Florida is experiencing a 40-year low crime rate. Floridians deserve to see some efficiencies as a result. Florida has the opportunity now to find efficiencies in the prison system so that more of the dollars going to prisons can be spent on education and igniting job growth.”
The Florida Department of Corrections experienced a major round of layoffs this year in response to continued budget cuts. Last June, DOC cut more than 100 positions in its Tallahassee central office, resulting in 48 layoffs. The agency saved $6 million by trimming 111 positions, which included senior attorneys, food-service specialists, secretaries and clerks. Earlier in the month, the department had laid off 190 temporary employees who had never attended corrections academy. These cuts earned Scott the knickname “Pink Slip Rick” by critics.
State lawmakers also considered privatizing health care at the state’s prisons to save an estimated $75 million. Earlier this year, the Legislature voted to defund the Correctional Medical Authority, effectively abolishing an independent state agency created in 1986 in response to litigation filed against state prison conditions. The agency’s nine employees would visit the state’s prisons, evaluating whether they were providing constitutionally adequate health care. Now that agency is gone.
The State Correctional Officers Police Benevolent Association has warned that the cuts could make Florida’s prisons more dangerous, including for the corrections officers who are employed in those facilities. In a message posted on the association’s web site, James Baiardi, president of the association, wrote “Behind the walls, our brothers and sisters are underpaid and outnumbered while working in a dangerous environment that is overcrowded with violent felons and gang members. To make the situation even worse, prisons in Florida and nationwide are understaffed with extremely high turnover rates. Correctional Officers are routinely assaulted on the job and sometimes killed. There have been 34 state correctional officers killed in Florida alone.”
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Scott, though, has countered that the state is on the right track, and his office will focus in 2012 on improving education and creating more jobs, and not on the prison system.
The governor took credit for what he said was an improving economy. His office noted that Florida has gained 106,900 net new jobs since January with a total of 118,000 jobs in the private sector.
“I would like to thank all of the Floridians – small business owners, job creators, parents, teachers and students – that took the time to talk with me over the past few months,” the governor said. “It has been an important and meaningful dialogue and I hope they will continue to let me know what they think.”
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